Moonshine to the rescue

14 moonshineMoonshine has come to my rescue.

I am always trying to find ways to make North Carolina No. 1 in something important.

Thanks to University of North Carolina at Asheville Professor Daniel Pierce, we have a substantial claim to be No. 1. In his new book, “Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World,” he asserts that our state is tops in moonshine. He writes, “Indeed, if North Carolina has ever held the distinction of being number one nationally in anything, it is in moonshine production.”

Then, in about 275 pages, showing the long and rich history of the making, sale and consumption of illegal liquor, he shows why and how North Carolina developed its No. 1 connection with what we call moonshine, also known by other names, such as corn liquor, white lighting, blockade, home brew and a host of other terms.

“From the earliest colonial times, farmers, using techniques their families had learned in the British Isles, distilled their corn and fruit into whisky and brandy.”

Until Civil War times, no government restrictions prevented them from making alcoholic beverages to trade or sell. In 1862, the national government passed an excise tax on liquor. After the Civil War, most farmers and other small producers ignored the tax, continued their production and made themselves petty criminals. Federal tax collectors tried to catch these moonshiners and put them out of business and into jail.

The high cost of tax-paid liquor made the production of untaxed moonshine more profitable and more prevalent in every part of North Carolina.

The prohibition movement was growing. In 1909, the state implemented statewide prohibition. Then in 1920, national prohibition went into effect.

Pierce says, “Prohibition only increased the market for moonshine in the state and kept the state in the forefront of illegal liquor production nationally through the 1960s.”

As legal liquor became more available, this shine on moonshine dimmed.

Pierce’s great storytelling gifts make his thorough study of moonshine a fun read.

For instance, he gathers short articles on legendary personalities into a hypothetical “North Carolina Moonshine Hall of Fame (and Shame).”

My favorite of Pierce’s Hall of Famers is Percy Flowers. He was born in 1903 and grew up in Johnston County on a farm near the community of Archer Lodge. He left home at 16 to get away from an abusive father. He learned the liquor making craft from an African American expert and parlayed that expertise into a multi-million dollar enterprise. He was an organizer, hiring others to make the moonshine while he managed the distribution.

I first heard of Flowers from Lynwood Parker, owner of the White Swan Bar-B-Que near Smithfield. Flowers once owned the building where White Swan is today. Ever since, I have been eager to learn more about Flowers. Pierce has obliged.

Flowers entered the business about the time the 18th Amendment’s national prohibition began in 1920. He told people he made more money during those prohibition years than any other period of his life.

Pierce writes, “He was successful not only in making a fortune, producing and selling illegal liquor but also, especially given his high profile, in evading law enforcement.”

Flowers is joined in the Hall by famous figures such as Junior Johnson, the legendary race car driver who learned his trade driving moonshine in cars fast enough to evade the revenuers. Others include Rhoda Lowry, the widow of Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowry and modern media figures, Popcorn Sutton and Jim Tom Hedrick, who had brands of “legal moonshine” named after them.

There is more, so much more. So if you are looking for a Christmas present for a hard-to-give friend or family member, “Tar Heel Lightnin’” could be a good option.

Methodist University celebrates the season with a Yuletide Feast

10 feaste18Oye! Oye! Methodist University’s Renaissance-themed Yuletide Feaste is returning this Christmas season Dec. 6 and 7 for its ninth year of spreading holiday merriment and mirth to the Fayetteville area.

Not an ordinary dinner theater, the Methodist University Chorale takes patrons on a trip back in time to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, as members of the choir, bedecked in their fifteenth-century finery, celebrate the joy of the season as members of the Queen’s court. The show features a variety of traditional and period carols, sung by the University Choir, as well as special holiday pieces presented by MU’s elite Chamber Singers. The show culminates in a moving rendition of “Silent Night” sung by candlelight, as guests are invited to reflect upon the deeper meaning of the season. The show is full of warmth and heart, as it offers not only lighthearted entertainment for guests, but invites everyone, performers and patrons alike, to experience the comfort and joy of the Christmas spirit.

As the name suggests, Yuletide Feaste offers its patrons top-notch entertainment, but it also provides guests with a sumptuous spread inspired by the holiday feasts held by the royal courts of 15th-century Europe. The four-course meal includes dishes such as butternut squash soup, stuffed chicken with smoked Gouda, wild rice pilaf and much more. There are also vegetarian options available for those who prefer to forego meat. Finally, the meal concludes with a spectacular dessert — figgy pudding, doused in brandy and then set aflame, as the dish has traditionally been served for hundreds of years.

The Yuletide Feaste was the brainchild of Dr. Michael Martin, the director of University Choirs at MU. Inspired by similar holiday shows put on at Kent State University, where he was a student, Martin brought the idea to the MU Chorale and organized Fayetteville’s first Feaste in 2011. As MU Chorale members will tell you, Feaste is as much a delight for the students to put on as it is for patrons to watch. This year, the president of the MU Chorale, Mrs. Jordan Dues, will portray Queen Elizabeth I. Dues, a senior, shared her sentiments: “Feaste has not only become a tradition for the Chorale, but also for the community. It’s a night filled with good food, good company and good entertainment. I’ve enjoyed being a part of the Chorale for these past four years and cannot imagine how I will feel next year when I can no longer be a part of this great family.”

Dues said that she will, however, continue to participate in the event after she graduates, albeit from the other side of the curtain. “I will come back as often as I can to watch the Queen’s court and the companionship that is exhibited.”

Yuletide Feaste will be held at Haymount United Methodist Church on Fort Bragg Road Dec. 6 and 7. Tickets are $45 each and benefit the MU Chorale, helping them travel to perform in various locations throughout the country and around the world. Tickets must be reserved by Nov. 25 and can be purchased online at or by mailing a physical copy of the registration form with a check or credit card number to Linda Volman Lane at the MU music department.

Did a happy marriage make Pat Conroy a better writer?

14 Tell me a storyDid the late great writer, Pat Conroy’s late-in-life marriage to fellow writer Cassandra King make him a better writer?

Just in case you don’t remember, Conroy, who died in 2016, was the best-selling author of “The Great Santini," “The Lords of Discipline,”  “The Prince of Tides," and “Beach Music." 

All of these were dark compelling stories filled with angry characters and sad family conflicts.

Conroy had what every writer or aspiring writer longs for, being a great storyteller and having a gift for writing moving prose.

His storytelling gifts were intertwined with a life that was filled with turmoil and with unhappy and abusive family situations. Most memorable was his relationship with his father, Marine Corps Col. Don Conroy, who became the iconic and central figure in “The Great Santini.” 

Conroy said that his dysfunctional family and abusive father were gifts that fueled his moving fiction.

All that began to change in February 1995 when Conroy met Cassandra King at a party during a literary conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Their friendship began around a buffet table and conversations about food. But when the conversation turned to King’s book, Conroy told her to have the publisher send him a copy. “If I like it,” he said, “I’ll give you a blurb. If not. I’ll pretend it got lost in the mail.”

King, now Cassandra King Conroy, tells the rest of the story in “Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy,” to be released October 29.

I will hold most of the details for a later column, but will share some of the story as it relates to the question in this column’s opening paragraph.

After a long and mostly long-distance friendship, one that only gradually turned to romance, Conroy and Cassandra wed in 1998 and settled down in Conroy’s house at Fripp Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina.

Conroy’s close friends worried about the gossip Cassandra would hear about his former wives and girlfriends. But when they learned that Cassandra’s first marriage had been to a minister, she joked, “From a holy man to Pat Conroy. Talk about a leap of faith.”

Cassandra’s writing benefited from Conroy’s encouragement. Talking with author and Conroy friend, Anne Rivers Siddons, Cassandra said she was writing a book about a group of her women friends, “real-life friends I’ve had for years.”
Siddons was alarmed and asked if Conroy had “urged you to do that.”

When Cassandra nodded, yes, Siddons cautioned, “Tread carefully. You know what that very thing has cost Pat. Beneath his tough shell he suffers more about the stuff he’s written than he’ll ever let anyone see."

In 2013, Conroy appeared with me on North Carolina Bookwatch to discuss his non-fiction book, “The Death of Santini," a memoir that centered on the death of his father. He was calm and relaxed as he talked about his writing routine.
In the early part of the day, he and Cassandra would each spend several hours writing alone, then lunch together, and have afternoons to relax. He radiated happiness. See this interview at

And his writing did change. He published only one more long book of fiction after his marriage, “South of Broad," which got a mixed critical reaction. In his New York Times’ review Roy Hoffman, while acknowledging that “Conroy remains a magician of the page,” wrote that his traditional themes “have simply been done better — by the author himself.”

On the other hand, his non-fiction books such as “My Losing Season,” and “Death of Santini,” although they show some of Conroy’s fiery spirit, the tone is moderated and sustains an authoritative command of his narrative. These books are two of my all-time favorites.

So did marriage make Conroy a better writer?  Certainly it made him a happier one.  And, I think it made him a better one, too.

Two from the east, two from the mountains: four of our best

13 THE CROSSINGTwo of North Carolina’s most beloved authors, Ron Rash and Charles Frazier, come from our mountain region. Two of our most promising younger writers, Jason Mott and De’Shawn Winslow, are African Americans from eastern North Carolina.

These four important writers join together in November to close the current season of UNC-TV’s "North Carolina Bookwatch."

Growing up in a working class family in rural Columbus County, Jason Mott developed an imagination, story telling gifts and a flair for writing that propelled his first novel, "The Returned," to The New York Times’ best seller-list and a television series based on the book. “The Returned” featured the reappearance in fully human form of people who died years ago. Mott’s ability to persuade literalists like me to suspend disbelief opened the door to my enjoying his provocative stories. He has done it again in his latest book, “The Crossing,” a story of a teenaged narrator and her twin brother coping in a world battered by deadly disease and war.

For many of us, Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” is a favorite novel, blending his beautiful writing with a compelling story. From the books that followed, “Thirteen Moons” and “Nightwoods,” Frazier gained recognition as North Carolina’s most admired writer of literary fiction since Thomas Wolfe.

Now he has another book set in Civil War times, with another imaginative story of a refugee from war. This time the central character is Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and until now an obscure Civil War footnote.

Through his fiction Frazier attempts to portray a true idea of Varina’s life and the times she experienced. Frazier refers to Varina as “V.”

He builds V’s story around an unusual fact. While living in Richmond as first lady of the Confederacy, she took in a young mulatto boy she called Jimmie. She raised him alongside her children. At the end of the Civil War, Union troops took the six-year-old Jimmie away from V, and she never learned what happened to him.

Ron Rash is famous for his poetry, short stories and novels. He is perhaps best known for the best selling novel “Serena,” although some of his fans and critics say that his latest, “The Risen” set in the mountains near Sylva, is his best.
Early in “The Risen,” in the present time, the local newspaper reports the discovery of the body of Jane Mosely, who had disappeared in the summer of 1969. The central character, Eugene Matney, and his brother had become involved with Jane with drugs and sex. When Jane’s body is found, the boys, now grown men, become possible murder suspects.

Almost all the characters in Elizabeth City native De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, “In West Mills,” are African American, but the book’s themes are universal.

West Mills is a fictional small town in eastern North Carolina, somewhere near Elizabeth City, where the author grew up.

That main character, Azalea Centre, or Knot, as she is called by everyone, has moved to West Mills to take a teaching job. Knot loves 19th century English literature. She also loves cheap moonshine and bedding a variety of men.

Two unintended pregnancies result in Knot’s having two daughters. They are adopted confidentially by local couples who name them Frances and Eunice. The girls, not knowing about their common origin, come to despise each other and fight for the attention of the same man.

On this situation, Winslow builds a series of confrontations and complications that challenge the comfortable order of the community.

I hope Bookwatch will produce a new season soon. In the meantime repeat episodes from the current season will air and give us another chance to experience these four important North Carolina authors.

Jazzemeia Horn to play at UNCW

15 jazzThere’s just nothing quite as distinctive as jazz music. It reaches into the depths of your core and seems to radiate throughout your being. It’s smooth, harmonious and full of dynamic rhythm. It is perfect for relaxing after a long day, hanging out with friends and even to help set the mood for a romantic evening. It expands into multiple cultures, ages and generations. The Cape Fear Jazz Society knows the impact and the reach jazz has, which is why it has invited performer, Jazzmeia Horn, to provide an evening of culture and entertainment on Nov. 3, 2019 at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Kenan Auditorium. 

 According to Primus Robinson, who represents the Cape Fear Jazz Society, the collaboration between the Society and the UNCW provides an opportunity to bring in nationally renowned talent, such as Horn, to a larger audience within this larger facility and contributes to the arts culture of the community.

This is the first collaboration between the society and UNCW, and the staff with both organizations chose Grammy-nominated, award-winning talent of Horn to share her unique, jaw-dropping vocal talent to foster and promote jazz, a mission of the CFJS.

The day after the concert, Horn will also teach a free “Artist Master Class,” offering students and fans an opportunity to learn from her about how the art of jazz captures her essence and how they can find that within themselves.

 The CFJS presents jazz in different locations, from small to large, with its tenth season currently in progress at The Cameron Art Museum. They havehad continued success to date with a sold-out crowd for its eight-month run.

CFJS just wrapped up its five-month outdoor series at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, making it their most successful while also celebrating their 10-year anniversary.

The CFJS is a nonprofit organization and has a mission to educate others on the appreciation of jazz, which is why it will continue to present jazz artists.

In the words of Robinson, “My favorite thing is experiencing togetherness. People enjoy exploring and delighting in innovative art. Jazz is creative, intellectual, accessible and unifying. Music is the healing force of the universe, Cape Fear Jazz Society has the great gift of music and art, which is the goal of the CFJS. We've been getting it right for 21 years.”

Tickets for the Jazzmeia Horn Concert begin at $20, and the event is appropriate for all ages and demographics.

Jazz lovers can look forward to seeing Jazzmeia Horn perform on Nov. 3 at the UNCW Kenan auditorium.

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